Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sullivan's Downward Spiral

Andrew Sullivan continues his downward spiral with his two latest posts on the cartoon controversy. In the first, he drubs the New York Times for publishing an article that describes the cartoons as "callous and feeble...cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper exploiting the general Muslim prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad to score cheap points about freedom of expression." Sullivan prefers the word "banal" to describe images that depict the founder and prophet of Islam as a terrorist. "Callous," he says, "is a very strong word."

I argee with Sullivan's argument that it is not a "cheap point" to "illustrate the climate of fear and intimidation that free artists and writers live under in Europe when tackling the issue of Islam." That does not mean the cartoons are not callous and it certainly does not mean that, in their own way, the cartoons were not designed to intimidate as well.
Choosing sides between those who would murder and kill and those who would simply draw and provoke is, for [Times critic] Michael Kimmelman "exasperating."
Again, Sullivan presents a false choice: either you are in favor of publishing the cartoons, or you are on the side of death. No concession that you could be against the violence and disapprove of the message in the cartoons. Print them, but don't ask me to like what they say—and most of all, don't tell me that if I don't like what they say, I'm on the side of the terrorists. I can't think of a more ignorant position to hold.

In the second post, Sullivan juxtaposes two images, one from the Danish cartoon series and one of Holy Virgin Mary from the 1999 Sensation show (an image referenced by Kimmelman in his article as an example of an artwork that sparked a furor). Here, Sullivan deliberately chooses the most inoffensive of the Danish cartoons to set next to the painting (which is a collage of Mary made of elephant dung and pornographic magazine clippings). It shows, goes Sullivan's argument, how much more tolerant we are. Why Sullivan would choose the truly banal Danish image is beyond me (why not Muhammad with a bomb in his turban?), but it certainly doesn't give the impression that he's confident in his comparison if he has to skew things so obviously.

The crux of Sullivan's argument is this: the Times will publish one image (dung Mary) but not the other. That shows that they're cowards and "not journalists." On the flip-side, Sullivan refuses to cover the fact that the Danish newspaper in question refused to publish caricatures of Jesus Christ in 2003 on the grounds that they would offend readers and weren't funny. To accuse one paper of hypocrisy for self-censoring what images it will publish with no mention whatsoever of similar actions from the other is, well, hypocrisy itself.
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